Oregon Magazine
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Roosevelt or Reagan?
USA Needs to Choose

(The following quotes from a speech given a month ago by John Marini, political science  professor at University of Nevada, Reno during a seminar on "America’s Entitlement Society at Hillsdale College, Michigan. We present these thoughts as extremely pertinent in our current polarized political society–Fred Delkin, editor)

On January 11, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his annual 
message to congress. It was probably the most far-reaching attempt by an 
American president to legitimize the welfare state, based upon the idea that
government must guarantee social and economic security for all. 

Thirty-seven years later, in his first inauguaral address on January 20, 1981, President Ronald Reagan would deny that government could provide such a broad guarantee of security in a manner consistent with the protection of American liberty. Indeed, he would insist that bureaucratic governmet had become a danger to the survival of our freedom. In looking at the differences between the views of Roosevelt and Reagan, we can discern the distinction between a constitutional regime-in which the power of government is limited so as to enable the people to rule-and an administration state, which presupposes the rule of a bureaucraticor intellectual elite.

When Roosevelt spoke to the nation, he was looking beyond the end of WWII. He said "Americans have joined the like-minded people in order to defend ourselves in a world that has been gravely threatened with gangster rule. But I do not think that any of us Americans can be content with mere survival. Sacrifices that we and our Allies are making impose upon us all a sacred obligation to see to it that out of this war we and our children will gain something better than survival. The one supreme objective for the future can be summed up in one word: Security. And that means not only physical security which provides safety from attacks by aggressors. It means also economic security, social security, moral security as a fundamental human right."

Roosevelt speaks against traditional views

"This republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable rights-the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures...our rights to life and liberty. As our nation has grown in size and stature, however-as our industrial economy expanded-these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence....people who are hungry...are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. These economic truths have been accepted as self-evident...a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established."

The Constitution established a limited government and a free economy. But such freedom, in Rooseveltr’s view, had made Americans insecure...he had lost faith in the principle of limited government. He thought that the protection of political rights by individuals unregulated by government had made it impossible to establish...equality in the pursuit of happiness. He assumed that tension between equality and liberty could only be resolved by a powerful...unlimited welfare state.

Rejecting the Founders

The American Founders, by contrast, thought that equality and liberty were perfectly compatible. The principle of natural equality was set forth in the Declaration of Independence...all human beings are the same, equally endowed with natural and inalienable rights. But along with this similarity, the Founders knew that differences are sown into human nature: some people are smarter, some stronger, some more beautiful, some are more artistically inclined while others have a predilection for business.

The Founders saw that preservation of freedom requires a defense of private property,  protection of the citizens’ rights of conscience, opinion, self-interest and labor. They thought that separation of church and state...the public and the private sphere, reconciles equality and liberty in a way that is compatible with the nature of man...thus the Constitution limits the power of government to the protection of natural rights.

Roosevelt rejected the idea of natural differences between men. He redefined the idea of freedom, divorcing it from the idea of individual rights and identifying it instead with the idea of security. This has resulted in replacing our constitutional form of limited government, beginning with the New Deal and culminating in an administrative or welfare state. 

Roosevelt declared a new compact between government and the people, contrary to the Constitution. The Declaration and Constitution are linked by the idea of the people as autonomous and government as the people’s servant. Jefferson, in the Declaration, clearly presented the relationship as "to secure these inalienable rights...governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed." The Constitution clearly states the authority of the people. 

Reagan begs to differ

Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural speech: "government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem." He was speaking of the severe economic ills plaguing the nation at the time of his election...and the growing power of a bureaucratic and intellectual elite which had become, in effect, an unelected government. In Roosevelt’s time, the Great Depression provided the occasion for expanding the role of the federal government. Reagan insisted that government had proved incapable of solving the problems of the economy or society.

He insisted: "We are a nation that has a government, not the other way around...making us special among the nations of Earth. Our government has no power except that granted it by the people. If we look to the answer as...why we have achieved so much...it was because we unleashed the energy and genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done. We’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing him or herself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? What does it mean whether you hold the deed to your business or property if the government holds the power of life and death over that business or property?"

Reagan declared that: "The full power of centralized government was the very thing the Founding Fathers sought to minimize...they also knew that government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector." Reagan revived the debate over the importance of limited government for the preservation of a free society. 

"We the People" honored

In his final State of the Union message, Reagan proclaimed: ‘The most exciting revolution ever known to humankind began with three simple words: ‘We the People.’ Reagan understood that tyranny and selfishness, are evils of human existence. The Founders created a constitutional government of limited power, trusting in the people.

The political debate in America today is portrqyed as being between progressives and reactionaries, the former working for change on behalf of a glorious future and the latter resisting that chage. Reagan denied these labels. He declared: "You and I are told that we have to choose between a left or right. I suggest that there is no such thing as left or right. Ther is only an up or down. Regardless of their sincerity, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on the downward course."

In light of the differences between...Roosevelt and Reagan, it is not surprising that political debates today are so bitter. They resemble the religious quarrrels that once convulsed western society. Progressive defenders of the bureaucratic state see government as the source of benevolence...to bring social justice as a reality. They believe that only mean-spirited reactionaries can object to a government whose purpose is to bring about this good end.

Ironically, the American regime was the first to solve the problem of religion in politics. Religion, too, had sought to establish the just or good society upon Earth. But as the Founders knew, this had simply led to various forms of clerical tyranny. 

Today, with the replacement of limited government by an administrative state, we see the emergence of a new form of elite, seeking to establish a new form of perfect justice. But as the Founders understood, and Reagan reiterated, in the absence of angels governing men, or men becoming angels, limited government remains the most reasonable and just form of human government.

© 2007 John Marini